A barbecue culture. From Girl Scout campfires to front yard grills, from Fourth of July parties on backyard decks, Brooklyn rooftops or lakeside park to summer bonfires, I’ve lived and eaten my way through many a tremendous barbecue. Foot longs nestled into soft, warm buns, burgers flipped and chicken dripping with spicy sauces were our mainstay, those homey barbecue staples both north and south, always causing endless minutes of agonizing distress and indecision, never being able to decide which to choose, wanting it all yet knowing that I would never be able to eat one of each. Tables groaning under the weight of endless bowls of cool, crispy coleslaw, tangy with vinegar, creamy potato salad studded with gems of celery and carrot bits or speckled with chopped fresh herbs; steaming bowls of baked beans, heady with the salty bite of bacon, thick with molasses, as spicy or as smooth as you please. Potatoes tossed whole straight into the fire, snuggled deep down into the coals then opened like presents, peeling back the shimmering silver foil to reveal the crispy skin and meltingly smooth flesh of a truly “hot potato”. Pyramids of sweet corn on the cob, dripping with butter, its saltiness mingling ever so perfectly with the sugary corn; each kernel cracking under the bite of your teeth, digging into the tender-cooked nibs, the best part of the meal hidden underneath her silky husk.
Wash it down with glasses of fruity sangria, just a spritz of lemon, or a frosty beer. Cans of soda spilling out of coolers, tucked into mounds of ice itself just waiting, begging to be scooped up in spite of the drinks and spilled into a glass, crunched and slurped to stave off the August heat. Bright red watermelons sliced by the dozen and passed around like candy, as sweet as sugar, black seeds spit across lawns, a favorite summer occupation for kids and adults alike. Cold watermelon, an outdoor meal’s best friend, followed quickly by ice cream in a rainbow of colors, a flavor for everyone; or sheet cakes in lemon, vanilla or chocolate slathered with whipped cream and piled with berries of red, white and blue.
Drunk on food and laughter, the summer barbecue rarely seems to change from one American backyard to the next, one Fourth of July to the next. Yes, in Florida we often added shrimp, plump and pink and marinated in something citrusy, crunchy with coconut or savory with the flavors of Asia. Or maybe there were T-bone steaks, grilled until beautifully charred on the outside, pink and tender on the inside, turning the family barbecue into something surely more sophisticated and elegant. The pleasure and excitement of youth group bonfires heightened as the Sloppy Joes were passed around. Often the parties stayed outside, crowds of guests mingling as they might, the talk loud, the laughter infectious, steaming plates of meat carried from grill to table in an endless parade, forks stabbing at this or that, spoons carrying mounds of food to plates already overflowing; hobnobbing with this clutch of people then that one, an impromptu game of football adding noise and movement to an already vivacious garden party. And how many childhood barbecues around a swimming pool? While the adults manned the grill, sipped mixed cocktails and talked about their next cruise, the kids would splash in the water, playing shark or water tag and trying to play pranks on the parents. Exhausted, wrapped up in damp towels, we would plop down hungry around the picnic table on the patio, paper plates laden with everything we could squeeze onto it: a burger and a hot dog, slaw and beans, piles of chips, grab a soda and eat to our fill, probably knowing that thick slices of watermelon and ice cream bars waited for us after. Or, better yet, toasted marshmallows and S’Mores.
Once in a while, the meal was eaten at the table, indoors: plates passed to and from the grill as seconds and thirds were called, platters of sides shuffled from one end of the table to the other as desired. This was certainly a well-loved summer ritual every year up in New York whenever we stayed with Aunt Millie, Uncle Al and the cousins. After a day running around the park or, older, maybe taking an exciting trip into the city, we’d gather round the diningroom table for the summer barbecue. Yes, one kosher hot dog followed by one hamburger and all the fixings – which always included Marci and Uncle Al’s famous and fabulous coleslaw - most likely followed by cinema night, all the cousins packed downstairs in the den watching Top Hat or Swingtime. Or barbecues up in Albany at Sandra’s in their huge backyard, eating steamed clams followed by popsicles while we watched the fireworks.
I loved Saturdays when dad would wheel the stand barbecue out into the driveway in front of the house and fire up the coals. Mom would buy plastic containers of slaw and potato salad and bakery buns, maybe roast sweet potatoes in the oven until so soft the crispy skin would fall away from the flesh, which would just melt in the mouth, sweet like candy. And of course there was always watermelon, those huge sugary Florida watermelons that we would pick up at one of the small farmer’s market stands that stood in any number of gas station parking lots along South Patrick Drive, piled up next to the mountains of local tomatoes and peaches, bright, sweet and fragrant. Dad would flip burgers that he made himself, always studded with chopped onion. Happy we were in spite of the stifling heat with no shade to protect or comfort us, bare feet dancing on the burning cement sidewalk, just happy for the barbecue. And we would finish standing in the grass, leaning against the lamppost and having watermelon seed spitting contests like millions of American kids from coast to coast.
But these are typically American experiences, ones so many of us grew up with, those sweet memories tucked away in our minds, popping out every summer when the air blows a certain way, when the temperature climbs to searing with only the hint of a mild ocean breeze rustling our hair. I’ll be home, back in Florida, in a couple of weeks and I can already imagine walking through the deli section of the grocery store, wiggling my way through the barely-clad beach crowd, each baring as much skin as allowed, dressed down to tanks, shorts and flip-flops and grabbing what for an impromptu picnic or barbecue. But we were invited to a barbecue here in France last weekend and I must admit that JP and I, although not knowing at all what to expect, were as excited as kids to be there as visions of those American do’s swished and dashed through our brains.
Do the French ever let their hair down? I’m not so sure. We arrived, walking around the house and onto the well manicured expanse of green lawn and shook hands with the host (a former work colleague of my husband) and his lovely wife (who I liked quite a lot). Their 3 children stood quietly by, politely greeted us, kissing each of us on the cheeks in the French manner then stood patiently waiting to be dismissed. Organized and orderly, just a handful of close friends, beautiful food and plenty of wine, the French concept of a barbecue, as we quickly discovered, is just another elegant meal albeit served and eaten al fresco. The grill was tucked away in a lovely little alcove, part of a well thought out décor of leather swing chair and Moroccan chandelier. A wooden picnic table was laid out for 6 just outside the kitchen entrance and prettily decorated with dishes, wine glasses and cloth napkins tied up in ribbons, equally elegant children’s table off to the side. Marinated duck breasts were lined up on the rack over the flames as we sipped our first bottle of sparkling white wine and nibbled thin slices of bread spread with rillettes and taramasalata. Instead of piling food on plates willy-nilly and wandering from group to group, this was a quiet, sophisticated version of the barbecue, but lovely it was. The sun was warm on our shoulders, the food was plentiful and luscious, the wine flowed and the company nice… although I was indeed astonished that the two former colleagues of my husband continued to call him Mr. D…. instead of JP. Oh well, I’ll never get around the formality of the French, no matter the situation.
And as the meal wound down, as their huge Airedale shuffled over to the barbecue and proceeded to gently and quietly lick the meat and marinade essence off of the grill, as the wine glasses were drained and replaced with delicate demitasse cups, the Glazed Lemon Cake I had baked and brought was sliced and served to an eager table. A foolproof cake I have been making for twenty years or more based on a Maida Heatter recipe, this is a fabulous, moist cake, oh so lemony thanks not only to the lemon zest added to the silky batter but to the gorgeous tangy sweet lemony glaze slathered on the top and sides. The glaze (and do not be stunned or put off by the quantity! Use it all!) soaks into the dense pound cake and forms a wonderful thin crust on the outside of the cake as it dries and infuses the entire moist cake with its tart lemony goodness. Don't let the simple demeanor or plain-Jane outward appearance fool you: this is the perfect cake, delicious and flavorful, fantastic for a dinner party dessert, barbecues, picnics, lunchboxes and snacks. Or feeling decadent? Top with freshly whipped cream.
GLAZED LEMON BUNDT CAKE
A family favorite for twenty years. Mostly from Maida Heatter.
3 cups (420 g) flour, very lightly spooned into measuring cup then sifted
2 tsps baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ pound (1 cup/225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups (400 g) sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup milk, preferably whole milk
1 tsp vanilla
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
Adjust the oven rack one-third up from the bottom. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and generously butter a Bundt pan (or 9 x 3 1/2 – inch tube pan) and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl as needed to keep the mixture smooth and blended. Beat in the vanilla.
On lowest speed, beat in the dry ingredients in 3 additions alternating with the milk in 2, beginning and ending with the dry, beating only until blended and smooth after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the grated lemon zest.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan then level the top by rotating the pan briskly back and forth.
Bake the cake for an hour or a bit more, until puffed, the top is a golden brown and it is completely set in the center (lightly press the top of the cake to tell and a tester inserted in the cake should come out dry).
Let the cake stand in the pan for about 3 minutes and then cover with a rack and invert. Gently remove the pan, leaving the cake upside down (if using a tube pan instead of a Bundt pan, I would flip back upright). Place the cake on the rack over a large piece of aluminum foil or wax paper and prepare the Lemon Glaze.
To be prepared just before using; use right after it is made.
1/3 cup (about 85 ml) freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice
¾ cup (150 g) granulated sugar
Stir the lemon juice and sugar together until thick and well blended. Brush all over the cake (top, sides and inside the “tube”) heavily and evenly until you have brushed on all of the glaze. Allow the cake to cool completely before, using wide, flat, metal spatulas, gently sliding onto a serving platter.